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The name, which is the equivalent to Spence, means custodian, or dispenser, of the larder. The principal Scottish family claims descent from one of the ancient earls of Fife. In 1300 Henry de Spens of Lathallan, Fife died, and the lands were made into a barony in 1430.

Dr Nathaniel Spens (1728-1815), second son of the 15th Laird of Lathallan bought back Craigsanquhar, Fife (which belonged to the family from 1385 to 1524) in 1792 His descendant, Sir Patrick Spens (1885-1973), was created 1st Lord Spens of Blairsanquhar, Fife, in 1959.